“You know, when I was coming to New York, through the clouds, I didn’t see any stars,” Benjamin Clementine gently says. “It was nighttime, I looked down, and I saw lights, so I imagined the stars were falling down from the sky. When we landed, I still didn’t see the stars,” he continues. “It’s all in New York, the stars are right here. They’ve become human beings.”
The way Clementine speaks in conversation mimics the rhythmic and anecdotal nature of his songs, which are first and foremost poetry. His lyrics are easily read without accompanying music, and perhaps resonate even more as poetic verse. Although he speaks softly and slowly, and at times struggles to fill the void between songs during intimate performances (he looks at the audience, chuckles, says “hello, again,” and returns his gaze to the piano), Clementine’s lifelong troubles seep through his emotive and narrative lyricism. On his debut album At Least For Now, released last year and winner of the U.K.’s acclaimed Mercury Prize, Clementine showcases songs like “Edmonton,” on which his deep voice croons, “Oh how swallow is to hunger / As a pigeon to my Trafalgar … Edmonton / Will we change … I ain’t talking about a revolution / just a simple hello friend, will do.”
In no chronological order, At Least For Now pieces together the story of a boy who had hardly strayed outside of his neighborhood of Edmonton, East London, yet decided to leave home at the age of 16. The boy slowly embarked on a journey toward discovering himself and his independence. Three years later, at age 19, he moved to Paris alone, where he lived on the streets and sang in metro stations and pubs until he could afford a bunk at a hostel in a 10-person room. It might seem like a stroke of luck that an agent happened to attend one of his later performances, but to Clementine, everything happens for a reason; he had been busking for years, becoming somewhat of a cult icon on Parisian streets, and growing up, he taught himself to play the instruments he now knows (guitar, piano, drums, bass, among others) and studied literature on his own (the public library was his sanctuary). The agent introduced Clementine to his now-manager, who helped record Clementine’s Cornerstone (2013) and Glorious You (2014) EPs, until signing with Capitol, Virgin EMI, and Barclay.
Now 27, Clementine has performed at Burberry runway shows and just finished a sold-out residency in New York City. “I was very skeptical in the beginning. I really wanted to just do [the shows] and leave, but now I’m starting to get the whole feeling,” he says when we meet him a few days before his last show. “I’m going to stay longer. I think I can explore more, meet people, and share my music with them. There’s a spirit here, and if you don’t come here, you never feel it.”
EMILY MCDERMOTT: So you just extended your stay in New York. How has the city inspired you?
BENJAMIN CLEMENTINE: Where I’m staying, near Lafayette Street, Bowery, and Houston, you get different people with different spirits, and that’s what I like. It’s a bit different, more open [than Paris]. I know that New York is big, there are huge buildings, but in fact, it’s quite small and contained…I like it when cities are melancholic. When it started snowing for example, I felt very lonely. I felt very comfortable and very relaxed. When that happens, I write. So I’ve been writing, not a lot, but I’m inspired everyday.
MCDERMOTT: I read that you’re writing a book of poetry called Life Through the Eyes of a Library Hound. Can you tell me about it?
CLEMENTINE: I actually have it written already. I’m looking for a publisher now. It was meant to come out with my album, but didn’t due to contractual [complications]. I could come up with a pen name, but I don’t want to do that. It’s from me, so why should I come up with a fabricated name? So I’m still working on getting it out, but I finished it. There are so many things happening that I didn’t actually think would happen; I underestimated what was going to happen in terms of my album. Spending some time here, I’ve got time on my side and I’m meeting people. By summer, it should be out. Hopefully.
MCDERMOTT: For you, is there any separation between writing a song and writing a poem?
CLEMENTINE: There’s no separation. It’s always a poem. Poetry itself is music. I’m just lucky that I can convert it into music. William Blake is my favorite poet of all time, and he said that he wasn’t quite familiar with the sounds of music. If so, he would have been a musician. All of his poems are all like songs, and that’s how I always try to start my thoughts. I write them down first, eventually it turns into a poem, and if I feel like composing something to it, then I do that.
MCDERMOTT: In “Edmonton,” you talk about John 11:35, which is simply “Jesus wept” and the shortest verse in the Bible. What does that verse mean to you?
CLEMENTINE: At home and in church—which I didn’t go to a lot, I was very rebellious, but my family was strict Christians—they would ask us, “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?” and I was the one who always said “John 11:35” straightaway. It stayed with me, the Bible has stayed with me. I’ve grown out of it, because obviously you live life for yourself and have your choice to believe what you want to believe in, but I know that the Bible can be used to appreciate life. People take things too literal in the Bible and it’s totally wrong. When I talk about William Blake, the Bible, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis, it’s part of what I grew up with, part of my culture. So “Edmonton,” Edmonton is where I’m from and it came out of these things I grew up with. Most of the people in Edmonton are Christians, so in the context of the song, I used “Jesus wept” tactically. I felt like I was touched by that part of the Bible and the whole point of the song is that people in Edmonton must help each other. It was actually the first song I ever wrote.
MCDERMOTT: The line about the street that you used to cross to go to school and how it was full of prostitutes when you returned is really powerful.
CLEMENTINE: That’s an experience. It’s happened. I’m not dismissing prostitutes, but a lot has changed. This so-called gentrification, it can never be stopped. There’s a place in London called Denmark Street, where Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney and others went to jam. When I was a kid, I used to go to a music shop there and dream about one day getting one of the instruments. I would go into the piano shop and pretend that my father was extremely rich, pretend like I could afford it. The manager was always laughing at me because he knew I couldn’t afford it. I went back there, now that I can afford it—I didn’t buy anything—but the street is closing down because they want to build skyscrapers and flats.
MCDERMOTT: And you know the people who buy those flats won’t actually ever live there. They’ll only be investment properties.
CLEMENTINE: Oligarchs, man, oligarchs. We should really do something about it, but I don’t know how. If we protest and all of that, it hardly does a thing anymore. Maybe in the ’70s, but in these times, people look at you like, “What the hell are you doing? Go home.” We’ve all given up. It’s really sad.
MCDERMOTT: So, I read that you’ve also done a few things with Burberry but the entire situation is a bit unclear. Can you talk about what you’ve done with the label?
CLEMENTINE: Look, I’m not a fashion [person] or whatever all that nonsense is, but Christopher Bailey [the Chief Creative and CEO of Burberry] is a lovely chap. I have met a few people like him, who are so respected in the fashion industry and all around the world, and are still very humble. People who have it all but act like they only just started, it’s beautiful. This is what I want to be.
I know when people are genuinely genuine and I could tell, the first time I met him, that he really liked my music. He wasn’t just saying it so he could do some marketing. He’s helped me all the way; he’s given me so much, in terms of putting me in his shows and helping me mentally as well, with where I need to go. So I have a relationship with him, he put my music on his adverts, and it’s coming out in April. [My music] is opposite to fashion, but I feel that he’s an artist, and because he loves my music and because I love him, I can give him my music and he can do whatever he wants with it.
MCDERMOTT: When you say that he’s helped you mentally, what has he taught you or specifically helped you with?
CLEMENTINE: He’s made me think that no matter what I have or where I’m trying to go, when I get there, I’ll still be the same person. He’s mentally twitched my prejudice of wealthy people, fashion, and all of these [things]. There are genuinely great people in all of these places, and at the end of the day, they all need music. It’ll hit them and make them reflect about their lives. Happiness is overrated and money can’t justify it.
I’m from a middle class family but my father squandered all the money, so I didn’t really run around with rich people. I was very judgmental towards a lot of them, but [Christopher] has made me think very differently about it, and I’m happy that he made me think this way. You can’t judge people by their cover. Some people are saying that my music is not for Burberry, it’s not for fashion. I know where they’re trying to go but if you’re saying my music is only for deprived and sad people, then you’re not helping me and you’re not helping yourself. It’s meant to be for everyone.
MCDERMOTT: That’s a very close-minded perspective for someone to have, but it can also be really difficult to open your mind until you meet someone, like Christopher for you, who helps you adjust your perspective.
CLEMENTINE: It is very hard, because when you look at the media and television, and all this Hollywood stuff, you just judge people. This psychologist Donald Winnicott said that we have the real self and the false self, there’s nothing wrong with them, and everyone has both of them. The real self is who you are when you’re at home, when you’re comfortable, and the false self is what you’re pretending—and the reason you pretend is because you want to create a character for the surroundings you’re within. When all of these people, from Kanye West to Kate Winslet, go outside, they might have their fake self but they still have a real self. Some people will never be able to get their real self, but that’s fine, too, because their fake self is also part of them.
MCDERMOTT: Are you consciously aware of your fake self?
CLEMENTINE: I think Winnicott is right; you have a fake self and I have a fake self, especially when I’m not comfortable with my silence. If I’m being forced to do something I don’t want to do, my real self comes out. But whether or not I’m aware of it, no matter what happens, I’m always going to have a fake self and I’m not going to judge my fake self. For example, a song might sound like I’m 70 but I’m in my 20s. The great David Bowie had to create different characters because of this. I think it is all about creating characters, mixing them up with the stars and the light-years, and coming back to Earth, because we’re from this universe. We’re not just New York or London; we’re stars.
There’s a part in every person that has a fake self. We’ve had this since infancy due to our parents and our upbringing. When you have a lot of fake selves, most of the time it’s because you haven’t had parents around so you try to build characters to protect yourself. Whereas if you’ve got great parents, once you grow up and have to live by yourself, you’re going to create some fake self as you get comfortable wherever you are. On-stage, I definitely want to use my real self because I’m singing to people who believe in what I’m singing, and I believe in what I’m singing, but they shouldn’t be fooled because we all have fake selves and it’s in there somewhere. It’s not pretending to hurt somebody; it’s just something that comes out of me, from my experience.
MCDERMOTT: Going back to when you first started performing in Paris, were you ever afraid? How did you come to terms with singing in public about such personal things?
CLEMENTINE: The experience that I had in Paris I could never have ever again in my life. This is when I grew up as a young man. I was independent. There was no one there to talk to; I didn’t even want to talk to anyone. I started to write about what I was experiencing, and I had no choice, so I was never scared. If I was [scared], then I would have tried my hardest to go back to London. I had given up… As soon as I took that ticket to Paris, it was survival of the fittest. I could have died the next day, and it was, “Okay, let’s just see what happens tomorrow.” I wasn’t afraid of talking about what I experienced.
In fact, when I first went there I didn’t sing about myself. I was doing Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, and eventually, when I started writing again, especially when I listened to French music and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, I realized that these lots talked about themselves. The greatest artists, they didn’t sing; they only spoke. And these are the artists I look up to. If I want to be great I’ve got to learn from them.
MCDERMOTT: Well, that’s what they say, a writer should only write what he knows.
CLEMENTINE: Exactly. For example, Sylvia Plath, confessional poetry, it’s the best. Learning from these great artists, I realized that “Hey, you’re living your life now and you’ve got something to say, so why not tell people what you think?” I was lucky to have read a lot of poetry when I was younger; it helped me to remember a way to write. I loved English literature—if didn’t it would have been hard—but I had to learn it myself. I remembered ways to repeat words, to put more emphasis on certain lines.
MCDERMOTT: You said something that caught my attention: “when I started writing again.” Did you stop writing for a period of time?
CLEMENTINE: Yeah. I wrote “Edmonton” when I was 15, I think, and I stopped writing at 16. I also lost a lot of stuff along the way because my parents divorced when I was 16. So I had to go live with my father first, for about three months, and it didn’t work out. I went back to live with my mum, and then she was always talking about my dad… So then I just fucked off, I went to Camden in North London. I felt like I was homeless anyway, so the change in environment wasn’t that much of a big deal. I felt pretty much the same. After six months of living on the streets [in Camden], I started singing, busking. I was singing all the artists I mentioned to you. One year down the line, I had really gone through some stuff and thought, “Why not come back to it, start writing?” I wasn’t singing yet, just writing, writing, writing. After two years, I started singing what I’d written.
MCDERMOTT: What did it feel like to start writing again?
CLEMENTINE: It was actually quite easy because I had something to say. I wasn’t quite used to writing a diary—I didn’t understand why people did it—but I wrote down notes and they went into a poem. I started understanding William Blake and George Orwell more and more. It’s amazing how we go to school when we’re so young, read all of these books, just trying to memorize them. When you start to live, you don’t have to memorize anything. You just go, “Ah, okay,” you understand it. I understood a lot of what William Blake was talking about, Sylvia, too, and Orwell as well. So I started writing and eventually I sang. Composing was more difficult than writing things down.
MCDERMOTT: What gave you the confidence to start singing about these personal things you had written?
CLEMENTINE: Confidence came from people. I think I’m very confident in me, as a human being. In fact, I might be confident for the human race because of what the human race has given me. When I was in the street and bars, people always came up to me and said, “Don’t stop, keep going.” When I started singing about my life and what I was going through, I felt more confident. It was my own life, I was being myself, I was telling people what was happening, a story—whether Cohen-style, or Dylan-style, or Simone-style. I’ve always been shy, but every time that I sing or I perform, when music comes out of me, it is the only thing I can relate to, it’s the only thing I can give. So even if someone thinks there’s a mistake I’ve made on the piano, to me it’s not a mistake; it’s how it’s meant to be. That’s what I mean about confidence: We’re all competent in different ways, we’ve just got to find a way to push ourselves up more.